ATLANTA, January 27, 2013 ― In November 1961, I was honored to be crowned Miss Albany State College. Soon thereafter, I learned that a crown is worth nothing without dignity.
That same month, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the NAACP, and local black improvement organizations founded the Albany Movement, a desegregation coalition based in my hometown of Albany, GA. I was thrilled to join the fight to end discrimination and segregation.
My story, along with those of other Civil Rights leaders, is profiled in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ latest project called the Freedom Mosaic, an online educational resource sharing the stories of individuals involved in the American Civil Rights Movement and contemporary Human Rights Movements around the world.
In December 1961, Albany police chief Laurie Pritchett ordered black protestors who were marching outside City Hall to disperse. We refused. Albany State president William H. Dennis, fearful of losing his position, later suspended forty students for being arrested in the Civil Rights demonstration.
I was one of those students.
The college stripped me of my crown and its accompanying scholarships. Along with four other student leaders, I was eventually expelled from Albany State.
Meanwhile, I was unaware that the movement had escalated and that Martin Luther King, Jr. had decided to join the protests in Albany.
As I sat in jail, I recalled my earliest memories of racial inequality. When I was five, Santa Claus had refused to talk to me, reaching around me to grab the white children instead. Even as a little girl, the harsh realities of racism and segregation were readily apparent to me. I also remembered the time I was shopping downtown as a teenager. I tried to enter the last store on my list with my arms full of packages. As I entered, a white man slammed the door in my face, leaving me to walk home, humiliated, with a bloody nose.
Those cruel experiences, along with many others, fueled my determination to participate in the fight against racism and segregation. I continued my activism throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
A few years later, I graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta.
In 2010, Albany State College officially apologized. I was re-crowned Miss Albany State 1961-62. In December 2011, I received an honorary degree from the now Albany State University. I finally felt a sense of closure of the Albany State episode.
Many activists have stories to contribute to the nation’s discourse on civil and human rights. After all, our fight for the passage of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a team effort.
The opportunity for future generations to learn from our stories is slipping away. Those of us still left are only growing older. Thankfully, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights recently decided to spotlight many of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.
I am honored to be featured in the Freedom Mosaic and hope that my story can benefit others, especially those involved in other fights for freedom around the world.
At the time, I was disappointed to lose the title of Miss Albany State because it meant the loss of its accompanying scholarships. An honor student when I was expelled, I was five months from graduating as the highest-ranking student majoring in English with minors in French, speech/drama and education. I held many offices and titles to which I had been elected, but the college rejected me, deeming me unfit to remain there because I had stood up for my rights.
In my heart, I knew then, and still know today, that I made the right decision. I could never give up my rights as a human being, not for a title, not even for scholarships and certainly not for a rhinestone crown.
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